For nearly 50 years churches at one of the sites where it is believed Christ was baptized by John the Baptist have been inaccessible to pilgrims due to a large amount of landmines hidden under the terrain. Now, thanks to a joint effort by the Israeli government and the HALO Trust, an international anti-landmine charity, the site is being cleared of the dangerous explosive traps and these churches could see their doors reopen as soon as 2019.
The site, located about 10 km east of the city of Jericho, is one of two places considered by tradition to be the spot where Jesus met with John the Baptist (the other is in Jordan, at a UNESCO World Heritage Site known as Bethany beyond the Jordan), just prior to beginning His ministry. It is also thought to be the place where the Israelites arrived in Canaan after crossing the Jordan at the completion of their 40 years of exodus.
It is estimated that deminers will have to recover around 3,000 landmines. Israel buried the landmines during the 1967 Six-Day War, a conflict between Israel and the governments of Jordan and Egypt. The site is in territory that was contested during that war.
Until now, pilgrims have been able to visit a small area of the riverbank, but a much larger 250-acre area is still littered with mines. In this area there remain several places of worship which have been off-limits, including a Catholic chapel belonging to the Franciscans, Greek and Ethiopian Orthodox monasteries, and Greek, Romanian, Syrian, Russian, and Coptic Orthodox churches.
EWTN reports the Franciscan chapel and the two monasteries have already been cleared. According to a spokesperson from HALO Trust, the work is conducted with armored excavators, along with manual teams equipped with metal detectors and magnetometers.
The teams who cleared the Ethiopian and Franciscan churches were the first people to enter these buildings in 50 years. They reportedly found religious items, crockery and cutlery, and even a supply of beer, all of which had been abandoned in the fast evacuation. These items were returned to their respective Church authorities in Jerusalem
James Cowan, CEO of HALO, released a statement on their progress:
“This Christmas, the HALO Trust has reached a pivotal point in our work to clear the Baptism Site of landmines and other remnants of war. Thanks to the dedication of our demining team and the generosity of the Israeli government and Christians, Jews and Muslims worldwide, we have completed clearance of the Ethiopian, Greek and Franciscan churches,” Cowan said. “In the coming weeks we will also complete the Russian churchyard. But we cannot stall in our mission to clear every church. HALO still needs at least $300,000 if we are to restore all the churches to their rightful purpose of peaceful worship and reflection.”
So far, between donations raised by HALO and support from the Israeli government over $1 million has been raised for the effort. While the remaining $300,000 is a hurdle, most of the work should be able to commence with what funding they already have. The work is expected to take 8 months to a year to complete.
Director of the Israeli National Mine Action Authority, Marcel Aviv, was thrilled by the work and hopes it will be finished soon:
“The de-mining of the Baptism Site — a place so significant to so many — is such a unique and wonderful opportunity. The cleaning and releasing of this land, and the ability to return them to their religious guardians, is a project we take great pride in.”